August 22, 2005

The Ethics of Torture

Set aside for a moment domestic laws and ratified international agreements regarding torture. Forget the implications of torture with regard to public or world opinion. When is physical torture ethical and when is physical torture unethical?

I have a simple jumping-off point: torture is not inherently unethical. Torture itself is morally neutral and can even be used in the service of both moral justice (inherent good) and pragmatic deterrence (instrumental good). We must again set aside everything but the act of torture; slippery slopes, bad press, criminal prosecutions are all irrelevant in this academic bubble. Torture can be good and torture can be bad, because torture is nothing more than a certain type of violence. Torture and violence are neutral actions. Of course, both of them can have tremendously bad consequences if used lightly - but again, forget the slippery slope for now.

Let's say that we have a terrorist whom we know is a terrorist. Just to be clear that this is a bad guy, we'll say our hypothetical terrorist both planned and undertook lethal actions against innocent men, women and children for being of the wrong nationality, race or faith.

Torturing this terrorist is a moral good when it serves justice; a lot of people don't like vengeance, but I'm personally a big fan of vengeance. Yay, vengeance. In my view, it is inherently good to punish the terrorist for the murders he committed, up to and including taking his life.

Torturing the same terrorist is an instrumental good when it deters or prevents future terrorist actions. This is why state torture generally exists: to beat information out of people. I'm not aware of the track record on how often good information can be physically tortured out of someone, but that sort of consideration would be critical to determining how instrumentally good torture would be; instrumentally-good torture is contingent on getting usable information to prevent further harm, or to deter terrorists for fear of being tortured.

Of course, what the terrorist and his ilk do to innocent people is also torture. Chopping off the heads of journalists and diplomats is decidedly torture. They are particularly brutal and will commit their torture against wholly innocent people for the sake of media coverage. Their torture is inherently bad because it is performed against innocent people.

That's the key to being inherently moral: the target must be deserving. The actor is irrelevant; the target is everything. A terrorist torturing a terrorist is inherently good, and a FBI agent torturing an innocent civilian is a moral bad. This brings us into the intent and thoughts of the torturers. It's my opinion that the act is separate from the actor's thoughts. Someone who enjoys torture on a visceral level (perversion, sociopathy, psychopathy, etc.) is an immoral person, whether or not the torture is moral or not. One terrorist could torture another terrorist out of a personal desire to kill a human being, making him an immoral person, while the act of torturing the targeted terrorist would be good for reasons of justice and vengeance. For the reverse to occur (good actor, bad act) would require a case of mistaken identity on the part of a well-intentioned torturer. Mistaken identity is perhaps the best argument in the case against real-world torture.

It's all well and good to confirm that violence, including torture, has its positive uses. If we lift the academic bubble, however, we can see that it's potentially quite dangerous to allow.

First, torturing people not convicted of crimes leaves open the very real possibility that an innocent person is being tortured. This is a problem, because there is no inherently good torture against an innocent person. Moreover, it's hard to get good intelligence from an innocent person (natch). And of course, the potential backlash from torturing someone later proven conclusively to be innocent would be severe.

Second, torturing guilty people might eventually lead to torturing people merely suspected of guilt, or to torture being accepted in everyday domestic crimes. Torture has long been a part of the police arsenal in many countries, and even in some liberal democracies the line against torture (including the protection against self-incrimination) is not nearly as strong as it really ought to be. This is the slippery slope argument.

Third, there's again the pragmatic question of whether torture is the best or even a good way of getting information. It's very possible that a beaten and bloody suspect will simply lie and give up bad or dangerous information in order to spare himself. Desperate people, especially desperate murderers that hate you and your 'people,' aren't great sources of information. The experts could better speak to this question than I could, however.

Fourth, we have a longstanding tradition, rightly so, of protecting the criminals and miscreants in our charge. They are fed, clothed and sheltered, given the right to legal recourse and appeals, and have the right to confidential interaction with their lawyers. I would not feel comfortable losing any of these rights, even for convicted murder-rapists. There's another question whether foreign combatants captured in period of war or conflict are covered by some or any of these protections, of course. The biggest pressure to use physical torture is against those held abroad (including Guantanamo) as terrorists or suspected terrorists.

Fifth, of course, is the potential backlash at home and abroad that torture would produce. It's no fun being told what to do or changing actions to avoid bad reactions, but if the underlying action is a mixed blessing then something like bad press is a pretty good reason. After all, if it ends up encouraging hatred of our country or if it ends up weakening our other foreign policies (like liberalization and democratization) then it's an instrumental bad.

I simply don't think it's appropriate for the state to engage in torture. If the state is going to exact vengeance, it should be done through incarceration and the death penalty, and after trials, appeals, counsel and all the rest. It's unnecessary for vengeance, so if it's justified it must be for pragmatic reasons. I'm not convinced that better information comes from a torture policy than from other avenues, nor am I delighted by the potential backlash or the slippery slope possibilities. I think the value of being a role-model nation is far greater than any supposed increased intelligence assets we may garner. The military conflicts we're fighting are important, but the political struggle to democratize the Middle East is the real conflict.

State torture itself is not automatically immoral, but it is a danger that risks the lives and liberties of innocents and threatens to undermine our primary foreign policy objective with regard to democratization. We should strongly restrict physical torture of those detained by our forces or our allies, avoid turning over captives to notorious torturing groups, and limit ourselves to more subtle and effective methods of gathering intelligence.


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